(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the third installment in my Order of Perseus series. All three can stand on their own, but if you’d like, you can read Scarlett’s story here and Taiyō’s here. In “Scarlet Warriors,” the two characters come together.)
Cappuccino-sipping patrons looked up from froth-lined mugs and craned their necks to see through crowded bodies and sofa backs as Taiyō walked through the café. His gelled hair didn’t budge, turning in one spiky, back-swept mass right along with his head as he searched the place. The stares began at his head, but lingered on his scarlet leather jacket, ornamented with gold tassels like a British Revolutionary War soldier.
He nudged through the snaking line to a tiny circular table crammed against the back wall. His black combat boots made a hefty sound on the floor. He slid into the table’s vacant chair so that his boots were nose-to-nose with the knee-high, chunky-heeled boots of Scarlett Beauchamp. She looked up from her mug only briefly as he sat, and scoffed as she twirled a spoon to ensure all of the white chocolate in her cappuccino didn’t settle at the bottom.
Taiyō’s dark, hooded eyes narrowed, and his generous mouth was marred by an annoyed snarl.
“What’s so funny?” he said.
“I forgot about that ridiculous jacket. Do you sleep in it?” She fixed him with a smirk, green eyes flashing with a mixture of amusement and disdain.
“Lay off the jacket, hunter,” he said, pointing a warning finger.
“I can see the glue.” She leaned back in her chair, tossing her strawberry blond hair over her shoulder. “Couldn’t you at least have sewn those things on?”
“Where’s your fairy tale cloak, huh?” he said.
“In here,” she said, reaching into her massive black purse to give him a peek at the cobalt blue fabric, “where it won’t catch people’s attention. This is a covert meeting. You’re wearing a freaking neon sign that says, ‘Look at me!’ The both of us could be in serious hot water if we’re seen together. You do understand that, right?”
Now it was his turn to scoff. “Yeah, I get it,” he said, bitterness clipping his voice. “Believe me. And remember, hot water for you means a reprimand. Hot water for me means jail, maybe a nice execution. So don’t talk to me about consequences.”
She studied him, feeling a small pang of guilt. “Fair enough.”
“If this is supposed to be covert, why in the hell are we in a packed coffee shop?” he said.
“It’s a lot easier to be conspicuous lost in a crowd than whispering to each other in an alley,” said Scarlett. “That was the idea anyway. Pretty sure you can’t be conspicuous anywhere with that hair, though. Exactly how long does it take you to get ready every morning?”
He gently ran a finger along one of the thick black spikes and said, “Art takes time.” He winked at her and clicked his tongue, and she rolled her eyes—a slow arc, as if she couldn’t really be bothered to put in the effort.
“Let’s get this over with,” said Scarlett.
From the depths of her purse, Scarlett pulled out a manila folder.
“Everything we have on Haimam is in here, including last known whereabouts.” She wiggled it at him.
“Looks thin,” said Taiyō, fighting to keep his face neutral as his heart raced.
“I don’t think I need to explain to you how hard a demon is to track,” said Scarlett. “They can’t even survive on our plane unless they’re inside a person or a pentagram.”
“I thought the Order of Perseus was supposed to be the best,” said Taiyō with a sneer.
“We are. Remind me how much progress you made on your own?”
He scowled. “Just hand it over.”
She held up a finger, slipping the folder into her lap. “Not until we have a little chat. You know the deal, warlock. Don’t try any funny business.”
“Funny business? What are you, a middle-aged renta-cop?”
She lowered her voice and leaned across the table. “I’m an eighteen-year-old monster hunter who could take your head off before you could get up from that chair, so the next time you open your mouth, something useful better come out of it.”
He leaned back, forcing a sharp breath through his nose. “What do you want to know? Didn’t you get the pictures?”
“Yes, but they aren’t very good. You only got the backs of people’s heads, really. And only one picture of the bag that you allege contains illegal monster parts.”
“Give me a break. I didn’t expect to see humans walk into a monster speakeasy, much less expect them to survive long enough to trade with a goblin. They took me off guard, and then I had a crazy ex-girlfriend to deal with.”
“How is your love life relevant to this?” said Scarlett, but her eyebrow raised, intrigued.
“It’s relevant when your ex is a psycho djinn who tried to slurp those humans’ brains like a freaking pina colada.”
Scarlett coughed, taken aback. “Okaaay, I’m sorry we don’t have time for that story.” She was surprised to see the hint of a smile play at his mouth. She felt her own face attempt to return the gesture, but she remained stoic. This was business, and she was playing with fire. Or in Taiyō’s case, lightning.
“You’re sure they were human? You said the girl ordered a hex bag. You’re sure she wasn’t a witch?”
“Really?” said Taiyō with an eye roll of his own. “I thought you hunters were supposed to be experts. Witches make their own hex bags.”
“I’m perfectly aware of that,” she said, going red around the ears. “It just seems … incredible. Ordinary humans and monsters don’t interact.”
“The Order’s made sure of that, huh?” said Taiyō, his tone so acidic that Scarlett expected him to spit at her. “I’m positive they were human, and this definitely wasn’t their first time trading with Balgrog. Now why don’t you tell me why you had me in that joint in the first place?”
“I told you. We had intel that illegal parts trading was conducted from the speakeasy. That’s all I’m telling you. You already know too much.”
“You going to slay me?” he said, the challenge materializing as a wicked grin that lit up his eyes.
Scarlett felt the magic come off him like a heat wave, standing strands of her hair on end, like the calm before a lightning storm. He was powerful for a seventeen-year-old warlock. Most didn’t obtain such strength until middle age. That cruel prank he’d pulled in the middle of downtown Franklin was probably a piece of cake, though he still claimed it was an accident. She let her fingers creep inside her bag where her sai blades were tucked.
“No,” she said. “I’m going to give you what I promised, and our dealings will be over, but I have a few more questions.”
His theatrical sigh made his whole body crest like a wave. “Fine. Shoot.” His eyes flashed. “I mean, talk.”
This time Scarlett couldn’t entirely suppress the grin.
“Did you get any indication that Balgrog was trading with other humans? That he had other customers?”
“I didn’t see anyone else, and I staked the place out for weeks. The bartender noticed me lurking I was there so often. Nothing and nobody went back into Balgrog’s office but those three humans. But I wouldn’t put it past the wrinkly old bastard.”
“Did anyone else in the bar seem like they were in on it? How about that bartender?”
Taiyō’s face went blank. “No.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not. No one even spoke to those humans except Balgrog and my ex, who didn’t have anything nice to say, believe me.”
“What’s the bartender’s name?”
“No.” He crossed his arms.
“What?” she said, a knife’s edge in her voice.
“I’m not giving you her name.”
“Then maybe I’m not giving you this folder.”
A war raged on his face. He clenched his teeth and twisted up his mouth. Callie’s wild, scarf-bound hair and violet eyes filled his head. He sighed heavy and said, “I won’t do it. She’s not involved, and I’m not going to be responsible for hunters coming after her for no reason. She …” He studied the corner of the ceiling before flicking determined eyes back to her. “She was kind to me. I won’t give you her name.”
Scarlett searched his face for a lie and found only resolve. She nodded. “Okay. Fair enough.” She plopped the folder on the table. “All yours.”
He snatched it up, rapid heartbeat humming in his ears. He stared at the creamy front, unable to open it. Inside were the answers he’d searched two years for. Scarlett had just printed them out of a computer. Just a few clicks for her. He didn’t want to open it in front of her. Didn’t want her to see what would cross his face when he read of the demonic entity that had butchered his mother.
“You’ll stop hunting me? For that accident downtown?” he said.
“Well, I will,” she said with an easy shrug. “I can’t speak for the Order.” She saw the fear tug at the corners of his eyes, though he tried to hide it. She sighed. “But if you’re arrested, I’ll tell my superiors about our arrangement, and your help. You’re not a high priority anyway.”
He gasped, bringing a hand to his chest. “I’m offended.”
“They’ll go easy on you,” she said, torn between frustration and amusement.
Taiyō stared at the folder again, clenching it so hard he almost bent it in half. Scarlett opened her mouth to give a brief goodbye—she’d already lingered far too long—but her watch beeped. A message from Sid. She tapped the screen, selecting the option that would display the message across the watch interface like a text rather than pull up a hologram of Sid’s grouchy face.
“Shit,” she said under her breath.
“What?” said Taiyō, peeling his eyes from the folder only for a moment.
“You don’t want to know,” she said, rising from the chair, purse over her shoulder.
“Going to slaughter one of my friends?” he said. He let the folder dangle between his legs as he turned a steely grin on her, the bitterness now blatant in his voice.
She clenched her jaw against a sudden crawling feeling in her gut. She would not be guilt tripped by a reckless criminal. A monster.
“Maybe,” she said, the word coming out sharper than she’d intended. “Know any giant centipedes?”
His face flickered like a broken projector, switching through a range of expressions until finally settling on something between concern and disbelief. “Ōmukade,” he whispered, awed, almost reverent.
She gaped. “You really know this thing personally?”
A throaty sound of annoyance escaped his lips. “No. We aren’t on a first name basis. That’s the Japanese name for them. Well, the regular ones are just mukade. They’re bad enough. Ōmukade is a legend, a yokai. A giant centipede who terrorized a water dragon king near Lake Biwa in Japan. It’s folklore. But you and I call that history, right?” He winked at her—a gesture without emotion, a second nature, meant to irk and infuriate.
She crossed her arms, chewing at her lip.
“You know how to kill this thing?”
“I know how the warrior killed it in the story,” said Taiyō with a shrug.
“Well are you going to tell me?” she said.
He leaned back in the chair, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. “Why should I?”
“Because people are dying.”
“Monsters die every day, at the hands of hunters like you. Those are my people.”
“We only kill those who have killed,” said Scarlett in a fierce whisper, coming closer to stand over him, red in the ears again.
“And what do you do with the rest? The ones just trying to live their lives.”
“You really don’t care that this thing has killed innocent people, children?” She looked over her shoulder. The novelty of Taiyō’s appearance had worn thin. No one was eavesdropping. “Last week it demolished an apartment complex and three full blocks of downtown Nashville. You know how many people were in those buildings? Wasn’t your mother a human?”
“Don’t talk about my mother,” he said in one breath. He calmed himself and said, “You mean those tornadoes weren’t really tornadoes?”
“Not a single one.”
“Should have known.”
“I don’t have time for this. It’s shown up again, all the way on Mt. Eagle. I have to get going.”
“They like mountains. Dark places they can burrow into,” he said, mostly to himself.
Her eyebrow raised, but she ignored the comment, instead pointing a threatening finger at his heart. “We never spoke. Give me back the camera watch.”
He sighed. “I thought you’d forgotten.” He reached into his jacket pocket and froze. “Can I keep it if I tell you how to kill the Ōmukade?”
She hesitated only a moment. “We’ll see.” She grabbed his jacket and yanked him up by the front of his shirt.
“Whoa, we haven’t even had a real date yet,” he said, looking down at her hand at his chest.
“Please,” she said through a sound of disgust. She pulled him along as she stalked through the crowd. “You can tell me this legend on the way there.”
He planted his feet as they cut through the ordering line, invoking angry protests from all sides. “No. I’ve held up my end of the deal. I’ve got things to do,” he said, holding up the folder.
She pulled him out of the line and whispered, “You’re coming, or I get an anonymous tip that you were spotted here today.”
“An Ōmukade wasn’t part of the deal,” he said through a frown.
“It is now,” she said, keeping her voice firm and fierce.
“Typical,” he spat. He shouldered past her. “Let’s go then.”
She followed, ignoring the guilt. People were dying, and he was a monster. He was the one who’d gotten himself in hot water by rearranging the faces of a few tourists. Noses where their mouths should be, eyes on their chin. She shuddered at the memory of the pictures.
The bell over the door chimed as they exited, and Scarlett pulled keys from her purse, after a good bit of rummaging. She stopped beside a black 2016 BMW with a convertible top.
“Standard issue?” he said, hands in his jeans pockets.
“Sweet sixteen,” she said, bleeping the locks.
“Ah, rich kid.”
“Get in,” she said, face stony.
The fabric seats clung to the vanilla scent of the candle-shaped air freshener dangling from her rearview.
“Is this thing rigged up like a spy movie?” he said. “You got gadgets? Maybe a soda dispenser?”
“Just this,” she said with the ghost of a grin.
She pulled a thick metal cylinder about the diameter of her palm from the center console and stuck it on the dash where Taiyō’s mother had kept an old radar gun detector. A blue light fanned out from it and enveloped the car, rippling the interior until the light made a full pass of the vehicle and vanished.
“Cloaking device?” he guessed.
“Yep. Now I can go as fast as I need to,” she said, revving the engine before whipping out of the parking space and peeling off down the two lane street.
Taiyō gripped the door as she wove back and forth across the yellow line, passing putzing tourists and cruising locals. He cursed when she drove onto the sidewalk and brushed a bush before shooting through a red light and onto a four lane road. She gunned the engine, and his head was forced into the headrest, crushing his gelled hair.
Her watched beeped again, but she didn’t slow as she read the message there.
“Another hunter closer to the area is supposed to meet me there. I’ll have to drop you off somewhere on the way.”
“Oh hell no,” he said. “You’re not leaving me in the middle of nowhere. What if the Ōmukade eats you? How am I supposed to get home? No, I’m staying with the car. Just keep the cloaking device on.”
“If he has his goggles on, he’ll see you.”
“Then you’d better make sure he doesn’t look at the car with his goggles on,” said Taiyō, putting a boot up on the dash.
“You have three seconds to move that foot before you lose it,” she said, eyes on the road as she rocketed onto the interstate and brought the car up to nearly a hundred miles per hour.
“Promise not to dump me on the side of the road,” said Taiyō, every muscle tense as she wove back and forth across the lanes, blowing past everyone.
“Fine. I’ll handcuff you and throw you in the backseat. If he sees you, I’ll just say I arrested you right before I got the call.”
“Arrested for what?” he said, letting his foot slide off the dash.
“Haven’t decided yet.”
“Tell me the legend.”
Taiyō fought back the memories that assaulted every sense. The warmth of his mother’s body on his back as he sat in her lap. The floral scent of her favorite perfume. Her voice at his ear. The light of the fireplace.
He cleared his throat. “So, this warrior, Hidesato, goes out looking for adventure and glory. He comes to Seta-no-Karashi bridge over Lake Biwa, and there’s this huge dragon blocking the way, sleeping. Hidesato doesn’t give a damn. He’s not afraid, so he just walks over the dragon, stepping on its tail, its feet, its back, crunching its scales. The dragon transforms. In some versions, it turns into a man, the Dragon King of the Lake. In others, it’s his daughter, the Dragon Princess. My mom always told it as the king. So the dragon king says, ‘Wow, you’re so brave. I’ve been laying on this bridge like every day for years, and no one else would even come near me. You’re the guy I need.’ The Ōmukade has been terrorizing his people, coming down from its cave on Mount Mikami every night to snatch one of his children or grandchildren for dinner. So Hidesato agrees to help him and slay the centipede. The Dragon King brings him under the bridge to his underwater castle to wait for the beast. They have a feast and a party.”
“Hidesato can breathe underwater?” said Scarlett.
“No,” said Taiyō with a flippant wave. “The water of the lake parts like Moses and the Red Sea, and Hidesato walks down to the marble palace.”
“Anyway, they’re partying like there’s no tomorrow, and then all of a sudden, the ground starts shaking. It sounds like a whole army is coming down the mountain, but it’s the Ōmukade’s hundreds of legs. It’s so long, its body wraps around the mountain four times as it comes down. Hidesato sees two massive fireballs and thinks the mountain is on fire, but the Dragon King says those are the Ōmukade’s eyes. So Hidesato takes out his bow and shoots between the two eyes, but the arrow bounces off. He tries again. His aim is true, but the arrow won’t pierce the centipede’s shell. Then he remembers that he heard that human saliva is deadly to regular mukade.”
“What? Really?” said Scarlett, looking over at Taiyō.
“No clue. Whoa! Watch the road!” Taiyō grabbed the seat and the door handle as Scarlett shot the car through the narrow gap between the vehicle in front and the semi coming from behind in the left lane.
“Relax,” she said, trying to conceal the pounding of her own heart by pushing her hair behind her ear with a shrug. “Does spit really kill centipedes?”
“That’s just how the story goes. Pretty sure it’s a myth, but who knows. In the story it’s real. So Hidesato puts the tip of his next arrow in his mouth and then shoots. Walla! It works. The arrow goes right in the Ōmukade’s brain, and it shakes the whole mountain as it dies. The Dragon King gives Hidesato a bunch of awesome gifts, like a never ending bag of rice—”
“Awesome!” said Scarlett.
“Right?” said Taiyō, smiling. “They all live happily ever after, of course.”
“Who’s ‘they’?” said Scarlett. “Is that the end? Doesn’t the hero usually find his true love in fairy tales?”
Taiyō shrugged. “That’s the end. Hidesato was a hero. No romance involved.”
“How sad,” said Scarlett.
She sounded genuinely disappointed, and Taiyō studied her before saying, “You’re one of those types, huh?”
She flicked her green eyes at him. “What type would that be?” she said.
“A hopeless romantic.”
She shrugged, color rising at her cheekbones. “Maybe. So what?”
“You believe in love at first sight?” he said, voice dripping with condescension.
Her embarrassment morphed into a lofty tilt of her head and a strong jaw. “No, but I believe in true love and soul mates.”
“Good luck with that,” he said, crossing his arms.
“So you’re a cynic,” she said.
She inhaled and shook her shoulders and head, as if his words were water rolling down her back. “So you’re telling me I have to spit on an arrow, and that may not actually work?” She scoffed. “So I basically have nothing. Thanks.”
“Hey, you’re the one who forced me along. I never guaranteed any results.”
“If this thing is Japanese, why is it here?” she said.
“The regular mukade aren’t just in Japan, so I would assume Ōmukade aren’t either. Although mukade are mostly in Asian countries, and they’ve never been found in the United States, that’s for sure. They would be all over Facebook.”
“Again, why is it here? How are they made? Where do they come from?”
The same questions had been tickling the edges of Taiyō’s mind since she’d first confessed its existence.
“It’s here because someone brought it here. That’s the only explanation,” he said.
“But who could do that? It’s not something you can sneak onto a plane or a boat. You’d have to … conjure it, or summon it.” Her head whipped toward him again. “A warlock. That’s the only explanation.”
“Don’t look at me,” he said, hands up. “But yes, most likely. Although, it’s also possible that, instead of conjuring one from thin air, which would take incredible power, a warlock put an enlargement spell on a regular mukade. And anyone could have smuggled an ordinary giant centipede over here, and just hired the warlock to make it bigger.”
“Hmm, good point,” she said.
“Maybe it’s a human behind this,” said Taiyō. “Maybe somebody like those punks from the speakeasy, who’ve discovered the monster world.”
“Unlikely,” she said with a snort.
“Is it really?”
She frowned at the road, silent. Taiyō smirked in triumph, but honestly, he found the theory highly unlikely, too. If a human had plotted this, the Ōmukade would’ve been let loose on a political building or a protest or a social justice event somewhere in LA, New York, or Washington D.C., not an apartment complex in Downtown Nashville, a high school in Spring Hill, and middle-of-nowhere Mount Eagle. Were the attack locations even organized, or had the culprit just created the monster and let it loose? Mount Eagle seemed like a place it would travel of its own free will. A place to hole up and make a home.
Why choose to conjure an obscure monster from an old Japanese legend? Japan was pretty trendy with Americans these days, but it still seemed an odd choice. Nothing added up, unless a warlock was to blame. Most likely a Japanese warlock, and he only knew of one of those in the whole state of Tennessee. At least, only one powerful enough to be on the magical community’s radar. Dear old dad.
The face of Himura Riku (or Riku Himura, as his driver’s license read) swam in Taiyō’s head. Severe brows and a tight jaw brought memories of soft but firmly spoken admonitions, but the mouth was curled in a special smile that brought back the aromas of herbal potions and a strong hand on Taiyō’s back that conveyed obvious pride in a job well done. The eyes, which were usually alight with a new discovery or prying inquisition, held a fondness that made Taiyō think of sun and sprinklers and laughter. Riku’s hair was knotted at the top of his head, and his trimmed beard was the only place his age showed in the form of scattered gray whiskers. The white button up and gray pants, bought at discount stores but tailored to perfection by Taiyō’s mother Aki, suggested normalcy and self-discipline, but the gold and jade pendants that peeked out from between the two undone buttons hinted at the unorthodox, untamed power within.
The image triggered feelings of deep sorrow, resentment, and love in Taiyō. It was enough to make him feel sick. He had learned early not to question why his father did anything, but secrets and questions held at the back of the tongue had led to his mother’s brutal and untimely death. He had never asked why Riku had summoned that demon, or why he’d kept it trapped in his study for nearly a week before Aki accidentally stumbled upon the hidden door for the first time in their eighteen-year marriage. Maybe it was time to make a call. Maybe it was time to start asking some questions.
“Scrunch up against the door,” said Scarlett, jolting Taiyō from his thoughts.
“Move out of the way of the GPS,” she said, pointing at the small touch screen in the dash that controlled the A/C and radio. “We’re at the base of the mountain, and I need to request the exact coordinates. Someone may hop on video chat when I do. Probably not, but I don’t want to risk them seeing you. In fact, hop in the back and lie in the floorboards.”
Taiyō blinked at her. “You expect me to unbuckle my seatbelt when you’re driving like a goblin on a joy ride?”
“I could hit the eject button instead.”
His head rocked back in surprise. He narrowed his eyes. “You’re bluffing.”
“Want to find out?” she said, holding his gaze and watching the road in her peripherals, which were as clear as facing forward thanks to the standard issue contacts. She didn’t have to tell him about those, though.
“All right, fine! Watch the road, maniac!” he said, unbuckling his seatbelt.
He slid into the back floorboards with the grace of a feline, and Scarlett raised a brow. Perhaps bringing him along wouldn’t be a total lapse in judgement. He might be of help if things went south. She used a nail to press a tiny button on the side of the screen where it jutted slightly out from the dash, and the device flipped around to reveal a hologram projector that produced a blue interface hovering over the gear shift. She inserted her code. When the prompt appeared, she said, “Mission coordinates.”
The screen shifted to show a vector image of the car and the surrounding road, with a circular wide-view map in the bottom right with an orange blinking dot in the western quadrant and further instructions listed in the top left corner of the screen.
“You can put your seatbelt back on,” said Scarlett with a grin.
A grunt answered, and he started to move back into the passenger seat. She held up a hand in front of him.
“Ah-ah,” she said, waggling a finger. “Stay back there.” As he grumbled and buckled the belt in the backseat, she reached over to take her handcuffs out of the glove compartment. She dangled them on a finger over the center console. “Put these on in case Oscar sees you.”
“Oscar?” he said with a snort, but Scarlett refused to take the bait.
“Five minutes,” she said.
“Greeeaaaat,” said Taiyō, clicking the cuffs loosely into place. “Let’s hope you have magic spit.”
“I think that’s the sweetest thing a boy’s ever said to me.”
To Scarlett’s surprise, he laughed—a sudden, pure sound.
The road spiraled up the mountain, and Scarlett knew there were only two real exits. It didn’t look like the GPS was going to take her to either. Instead, it prompted her to pull off at one of the many run-away truck ramps lining the road. She obeyed, but instead of parking on the ramp itself, she drove the car up to the trees that backed up to the sheer rock face of the mountain. The cloaking device concealed the car, but she didn’t want a trucker who’d blown his breaks to smash into her car should he need to careen up the ramp. Oscar’s car, a hunter green Jeep, was already there. She shouldn’t get far enough to completely conceal the car because Oscar’s was in the way.
“Don’t make a sound,” Scarlett whispered to Taiyō, searching for Oscar. He wasn’t in the Jeep.
Scarlett removed her dark blue cloak from her purse as she exited the car. She tied it at her neck, pulled back her hair in an elastic, and drew up the hood. She sat the purse on the driver’s seat and extracted two sai blades and a pistol loaded with silver bullets. She didn’t plan to run into a werewolf, but a gun was a gun. She attached all three weapons to her belt, shut and locked Taiyō inside the car, and then popped the trunk to retrieve a gladiator short sword that she concealed with the cloak until she was within the cover of the trees.
“Oscar?” she called as she pulled her goggles from her cloak pocket and slipped them on.
The interface blinked to life, scanning the area. Nothing in the immediate area lit up, and the ticker tape at the top of the interface read No trace of monster presence detected. Using a tiny trackball on the side of the goggles, she toggled the options to search for fellow hunters. Footprints left in depressions in the grass lit up, and she followed them to the back of the tree cluster to a sheer rock face. Traces of sweat in the shape of fingers lit up along the rock. Oscar had scaled the rock up to a lip fifteen feet above Scarlett’s head. She sheathed the sword on her back and then banged the heels of her boots together, activating blue lights on the heels and soles of the shoes. They wouldn’t keep her from falling, but they would enhance her footing. She ran at the rock face and leapt for the closest handhold. As her fingers closed around the jutting piece of rock, the shoes attached to the cliff like Velcro. She picked her way up by following the traces of Oscar’s handholds.
Why hadn’t he waited for her? she thought with a snarl of frustration. Oscar was twenty-one and had started hunter training at the ripe age of ten, the youngest recruit on record, and he seemed to think that made him better than everyone else. She hauled herself over the lip of the cliff and looked around.
Another cluster of trees. Another rock face climbing ever upward on her left. The footprints led her strait through the trees, and after a few yards, a cave materialized up ahead. The goggles pinpointed Oscar, but she’d already seen him crouched in a shrub next to the mouth of the cave, wearing all black. He waved her over, and she approached silently, switching her goggles back to standard mode.
The ground around the cave lit up, highlighting deep gouges in the earth—holes, as if the grass had been pierced by a hundred spikes. The ticker tape read, Giant centipede track. Target located. A black, withered circle of grass lit up. Venom traces detected. Skin dissolving. Proceed with caution. As if she needed that warning.
Oscar’s eyelashes were so dark he looked like he wore eyeliner, and he played up the look with his barber shop haircut, short and black around much of his head, but long and styled in a mild pompadour streaked with blue at the top. His leather jacket was armored, just like Scarlett’s cloak. He wore his war hammer on his back, the head shaped and painted like a growling bear. He had the physical breadth needed to wield such a hefty weapon, too.
“What took you so long?” he said with a half-smile that brought out his high cheekbones.
“I had an hour and a half drive. I cut it in half.”
“Geez, no reason to get touchy.”
“Have you heard it in there?” she asked, ignoring the comment.
“No, but if it was out and about, we’d know it,” said Oscar. “Got to be in there. Let’s go.”
“Wait,” said Scarlett, hauling him back as he made to strut toward the cave. “We can’t go charging in there. We’ve got to smoke it out somehow.”
“Scarlett,” he said with a miniscule condescending shake of the head, “we can see in the dark.” He tapped his goggles.
“Oscar,” she said, mocking his tone, “that thing is fifty feet long. Do you really want to be stuck in a small space with it?” She tapped her head. “Use your brain.”
He scowled. “How do you suggest we smoke it out, know-it-all?”
“Got any smoke bombs?” she said, trying not to look sheepish.
“Flash bombs?” she ventured.
“Actually, yes,” he said with a growing grin.
“Violà! There you go,” said Scarlett. “Toss that bad boy in there.”
He drew the silver ball from his jacket, depressed a button, shook it until the vibrations in his hand told him it was ready, and chucked it as hard as he could into the darkness. As the ball sailed through the cave, its growing light illuminated the dank sides, and just before the explosion that made Scarlett avert her eyes, she saw the yellow, segmented shape of an insect leg.
A rustling of shifting limbs and the tap of something like nails on the sides of the cave made Scarlett take a few steps back. A clicking made Scarlett envision sword-like pinchers in the dark. Oscar stood his ground and took up his war hammer. Scarlett drew her gun. There was a shifting inside, and loose rocks fell from the cave ceiling, cracking on the floor.
Two balls of flame flickered to life in the inky black, settled into a blood red head armed with pincers the length of a man that darted from the cave mouth. The strike was fast as an asp, and Oscar was sheared in half before he could swing the great weight of his hammer.
TO BE CONTINUED …